Spring flowers
autumn moon
summer breezes
winter snow:

With mind uncluttered
·  this is  ·
the finest season!

-Wúmén Huìkāi

Fall is here

Spring flowers, autumn moon;
   summer breezes, winter snow:
With mind uncluttered,
   this is the finest season.

      –Wumen Huikai


Autumn is, in some respects, the most interesting season. It is a time of drying, crackling, shedding, of pulling vital juices back into deep roots and preparing for death, deep dormancy, rebirth in situ or at a new location. Fall is when the superfluous is shed: that which does not sustain hibernation and recrudescence, the excess expressions that would hold ice, tangle wind, put all at risk. The spare flesh that need be returned to earth, in decay to sustain other life from mycelium to bacterium, ant to beetle grub, closing one loop in the great cycle.

Sulfur polypore

Sulfur polypore

And autumn, at least in the United States, is also pronounced “fall.” But leaf-drop does not often begin with the equinox; with first killing frosts weeks yet to come, this date brings only hints of the cold fire to come in the leaves of trees stressed by circumstance like this bug-bitten sassafras


thirsty dogwood


or sun-struck Japanese maple (here resting on a healthy native magnolia leaf)


–though swamp maples are ever in a rush to display their style:


And interpreting “foliage” more broadly than its roots dictate, we enjoy some spectacular (if difficult-to-photograph) native clumpgrasses, like this one propagated via a pinch of seed collected from an old meadow



or this uninvited but welcome arrival:


From spring through summer, they look like coarse low weeds; just as we begin to trade swim trunks for school clothes, they send up tall stalks from which to broadcast seed. Clumpgrasses make a fine foundation for a low-maintenance native wildflower patch: no watering, fertilizing, weed-killers or pesticides; just mow once each year to inhibit woody interlopers, and enjoy a year-round play of texture and color, plus more birds, butterflies and small mammals than any lawn or formal garden could ever support. And even our commonest graminoids can rival store-bought hybrids for beauty when allowed to achieve their natural proportions:


At night they provide safe cover to allow shy visitors closer in:



But not all creatures want to abide here. With the first chill come Canada geese, in flocks small and large, to rest and replenish at the Farrar Pond salad bar


until, after a lengthy conference of motivational squawking, they form up and head south:


Some who cannot escape the cold above prepare to do so below, like this green frog


that on some rainy night will, long before its upland pool freezes over, hop down to the big pond and bury itself in the mud until March. Or the ever-present but rarely seen beavers that created the beautiful low pool system—reminiscent of the travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Spring—at the pond’s Halfway Brook inlet, and keep those who maintain the outlet clear busy preventing a rise in water level that could flood  abutters’ basements.


Beavers chew wood for a number of reasons, including keeping their ever-growing teeth to a suitable length and killing trees they do not esteem to make room for others they do. Those that are felled serve many purposes, including structural (for both dam and lodge), immediate consumption and winter food stores. All around Farrar Pond are both old and fresh drops, easily identified by the color of chips and exposed wood,


as well as some still in process:


Not everyone can get out of Dodge by sundown; some just have to keep eating—often a rather calorie-sparse diet—building fat reserves for an active winter. Like this cottontail, still-small product of the season’s third litter:


In a normal, healthy ecosystem, the smaller outnumber the larger according to a power law. If the square mile around Farrar Pond can sustainably support (let us say) a pair of coyotes, a dozen deer, 1000 assorted squirrels and 5000 meadow voles, we might expect beetles, insects, spiders and others of their size to number in the millions. It is not that simple, of course; each requires a particular habitat (or several), and many of the wildflower meadows that supported butterflies have reverted to forest or been converted to monoculture, permanently juvenile lawns. Still, one does not have to look far to find fabulous variety. And in these changing days, the search is still shorter. Nectar-feeders have fewer oases by the week, so following the remaining color reliably leads to hymenoptera of many species


Sweet autumn clematis




Paniculate phlox



that sometimes mob the last ripe blossoms in a sunny area:






Rosa rugosa


Evening primrose

Lepidoptera means “scaly-wings,” a design that provides certain defensive and other advantages. But these butterflies show a long season’s wear, as neither scales nor wing regenerate:





And then there are the ones that feed on the ones that feed… Pickin’s get slimmer for them as well. Odonata will soon move on or perish


 and harvestmen huddle together in the lee of a milkweed leaf:


Some arthropods abandon the outdoors entirely, like these ants, sipping a borate soup that will not enhance their longevity


and this spider, hunting gnats attracted to a computer display:


The flowers that remain so late are often of introduced species not yet optimally adapted to our seasonal timing, like


Asiatic dayflower





Most native wildflowers have run their course, like this August candelabra now reduced to dry wicks,


Blue vervain


(Same plant)

nonetheless welcome as they will spread seed for more color next year.

And when flowers have done their job, the result is viable seed: naked, winged, enclosed in succulent pulp, or otherwise arrayed for dispersal by vectors living and meteorological. Some plants hold their produce until all is ripe, then release the load to ground or wind, bird or beast. Others spread theirs over days or weeks, whether to focus resources on at least some sure seed, or to attract a range of birds and animals as these move within and through the area. Smartweed is more of the former, pokeweed very much the latter, goldenrod somewhere between:



See the bee?


Virginia creeper and spikenard (a key ingredient of true root-beer) are extended producers


Parthenocissus quinquefolia


Aralia racemosa

while bayberry holds its fruit until well into the snows: native, nourishing, but apparently a food of late resort for winter birds.


Myrica pensylvanica

Not so the winterberry,


Ilex verticillata

a great favorite of bluebirds that will spend several minutes choking down one of the big fruit in apparent preference to pecking them apart. Likewise colorful are the flaming tips of staghorn sumac


Rhus typhina


that ripen all at once but are devoured over weeks. And many others are similarly spectacular, by themselves or in contrast with adjoining foliage:





Others, perhaps to avoid predation of seed that is adequately dispersed by natural forces, lose much of their flash as they ripen, like Eastern redbud


Cercis canadensis

and larch:


Larix laricina

A particularly felicitous phenomenon, not so common, is the simultaneous appearance of this year’s ripe fruit with next year’s well-formed bud. Examples include this Asian magnolia


Magnolia biondii or amoena

and our own, under-appreciated native dogwood:


Cornus florida

Still, no matter what weather may come and pass, some of our most subtly appealing biota live beyond the change of seasons, stable as the rocks—or yet more so, since rocks and trees are what they grind into their meal—the eternal slow lichens:




The immortal chestnut/3

In our previous episode, a chestnut tree in the last throes of blight put forth its second and last crop of nuts. –Last, at least, for another few years, until one of the young basal shoots matures enough to bear before the blight takes it in turn.

That crop was collected from open burrs before squirrels or other critters could scarf them up. All were stored wet in the refrigerator for the winter. (For those unfamiliar with so-called “stratification,” many plants use such a step both to ensure dispersal of seed and to delay sprouting until reliably persistent warm weather.)

Within a few months, the three largest nuts had germinated:


(The smaller ones, as expected, never did.) These three seedlings were placed in a potting medium mixed with a little native soil, to supply an appropriate microbiological community; kept in a sunny window until after the last killing frost;



and then moved outdoors to full sun:



 By early September, all had developed pencil-thick trunks and dense foliage:


They will be treated to one more winter in an unheated greenhouse—adding a few weeks to the growing season—then planted in some suitable woodsy location to naturalize. This is an exercise in optimism: however unlikely, there is always a chance that one sport seedling from the relatively few productive native chestnuts will bear a gene for resistance to the blight, thereby naturally restoring the native population in parallel with the hybrid breeding program being carried out nearby.